These past few months have proven to be challenging for everyone. The Black Lives Matter Movement has touched us all, be it in business, sport, education, or any other walk of life.

At last, we are all starting to open up and have candid conversations around race and racism in our society – many of which have been, and will continue to be, difficult to have and incredibly uncomfortable.

As a leader, I have learned that I should always make a point of upskilling myself when faced with new challenges, and the current situation is no different.

Fortunately, I have been able to engage with various resources at adidas and over the last few weeks and months, I have also learned a lot about myself – my talents and shortcomings – and my leadership style. I’ve come to accept that sometimes learning can be hard, but what I take great encouragement from is that I am not alone. Many other leaders from adidas and other companies, clubs, and organizations are also on this journey with me.

Listening sessions lead to safe spaces

One of the ways we are learning at adidas and Reebok is through listening sessions with our employees. These are group discussions where people are encouraged to share their feelings and experiences with racism: in a six-week period, our senior leaders have had more than 200 of these sessions around the world. The insights have been eye-opening and humbling, and we are so grateful to everyone who took the time to share their ideas and experiences.

Open and honest conversations among colleagues is key to further inclusive workplaces. (This picture was taken before the start of the coronavirus pandemic)

One of the most important takeaways I have learned from these sessions is how important a feeling of psychological safety is for our teams.

Safe spaces are something that leaders can create by what we do, and do not, tolerate. For example, if a colleague in a meeting makes an inappropriate joke or comment, and their leader tolerates it, then this behavior soon becomes accepted as the norm. However, if we as leaders have the confidence to call out such comments, it establishes an environment where our teams feel safe to do the same.

By letting our most vulnerable colleagues know that we have their back against injustice, we support creativity, innovation, and performance. How many great ideas have been missed because a team member did not feel ‘safe’ to suggest something?

Confident leadership is key

Creating this kind of environment takes confidence as a leader. Telling a colleague they have been inappropriate is not easy, nor is opening yourself up to criticism. However, if we are brave enough to have these conversations and strive to create safe spaces for our teams, then the long-term benefits can be enormous for individuals, teams, and businesses alike.

The new strong

Perhaps like me, this period has challenged you to think about the type of boss you want to work under and the leader that you want to be yourself?

The historical cast of a strong leader is someone who has the loudest voice, knows all the answers, and doesn’t show weakness… personally, I think this persona is out of date, especially when it comes to the topic of racism.

A team of diverse men and women sitting on steps smiling, teamwork, diversity, workplace, culture, colleagues, adidas
Leaders in business all have a role to play. (This picture was taken before the start of the coronavirus pandemic)

Change is a team sport

We, like so many other organizations, have more work to do on the topic of inclusion. I encourage leaders in all organizations who haven’t done so already to begin engaging with their teams in these types of listening sessions – not just in professional environments, but also in sports teams, music clubs, and social clubs. We need these sessions to develop a culture of safe spaces to make our organizations better, stronger, and more supportive of their members.

Are you tackling the problem of racism or lack of inclusion in your company or club through the creation of safe spaces? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

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13 COMMENTS & EXTERNAL REFERRALS

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by yasser tabbara 08.09.2020
no comment
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by Alex Ahom 09.09.2020
What does being a leader look like? I was asked this today in terms of D&I and anti racism. I believe the negativity we have seen recently can be tackled and beaten in the workplace. In many ways our workplaces mirror society.

As leaders we have to be bold and take 100% responsibility here. Drive those conversations, even though they are tough. Be vulnerable and take a stand to change toxic cultures. But here’s a massive one..... I’m an optimist and although many see people as the problem. They really are the solution.

Our values and mindsets create behaviours and the first step to winning here is empathy. Reduce those gaps that drive groups apart!

As a business athlete and someone who wants to add value to teams I’m part of, I encourage you to be ambitious. We can make sustainable change with the buy in and trust of others.
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Sina Port
Sina Port | Editor Alex Ahom 01.10.2020
Good point Alex - our workplace should mirror society, but in many ways they can also be more inclusive than society is - that's when you actively create safe spaces.

In some way D&I is not really a problem that needs a solution but more of a way of thinking and looking at your career and life. Just as you look at sustainability as a way of life and measurement - the same way we should look at being inclusive and inviting diversity into the space you enter.

Everyone of us is diverse within ourselves with all the unique identities, skills and ideas we hold! We just need to keep creating spaces that welcome and nourish each others innate diversity.
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by Raj 09.09.2020
Hi, I agree that we need confident leaders to address and not ignore derogatory comments, especially for the analysts who may feel afraid to speak up in case it impacts there progression. Could you possibly detail how you have lead over 200 sessions on safe spaces with leaders?
Kind regards,
Raj
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by Alim Dhanji Raj 12.09.2020
Ran, we provided guidance to our leaders on optimal group size (4-7), how to set up for success in a virtual setting, framework to open and guide the flow to encourage a safe space conducive to listening - and only listening. I can’t emphasize enough, the value of listening in order to understand and empathize. After the sessions were completed, leaders debriefed to share learnings, identify themes and propose actions.
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by Alim Dhanji Alim Dhanji 12.09.2020
Raj, that is. If only spell check was more inclusive! 😊
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by Shahazad Khalid 11.09.2020
We have started our journey within the U.K. organisation to help support out leaders to implement a top down strategy to help address unconscious bias, white privileged conversations, the true meaning of white privileged and allies. But most important implement bias interrupters to measure inclusion initiatives....you can have a diverse organisation....but is it inclusive?
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Sina Port
Sina Port | Editor Shahazad Khalid 01.10.2020
Yes Shahazad, that's a very important point! You cannot invite diversity into a space that is not ready to welcome it. Inclusion is what will hold you back from losing that diversity over time because people will eventually feel that the environment they are entering is not made for them. Super important point, thanks for sharing!
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by Zaryaya 13.09.2020
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by Ryan M Grogan 16.09.2020
I've been helping to set-up ERGs within our business and have found real success in painting a true picture of our current culture. There's really demonstrable gaps from what we want our culture to be and we've been demonstrating how that gap is going to hold us back in reaching our business goals.
I really like the way you speak about the new type of leader. I would say one of our biggest challenges will be changing the long-held view of what a leader looks like. Many of those in leadership roles do not know the power of vulnerability.
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Sina Port
Sina Port | Editor Ryan M Grogan 01.10.2020
Hi Ryan! I agree, and I can understand your journey as I'm also involved in ERGs. What many also forget is that leadership also often doesn't have to do with seniority. Someone can role model leadership from the bottom, if those on top are open minded (vulnerable as you say) and humble enough to admit and commit to learning.
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by Maria Culp Peterson 29.10.2020
Nice. Thank you, Alim, for your perspective and leadership!
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EXTERNAL REFERRALS

27.10.2020

Why you need safe spaces to tackle racism – BAMEed Network